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Buddhism

The World as Emptiness

Alan WattsA seminar by Alan Watts. The Buddhist view of the world as total flux, containing nothing to grasp and no one to grasp it...

This particular weekend seminar is devoted to Buddhism, and it should be said first that there is a sense in which Buddhism is Hinduism, stripped for export. Last week, when I discussed Hinduism, I discussed many things to do with the organization of Hindu society, because Hinduism is not merely what we call a religion, it's a whole culture. It's a legal system, it's a social system, it's a system of etiquette, and it includes everything. It includes housing, it includes food, it includes art.

Because the Hindus and many other ancient peoples do not make, as we do, a division between religion and everything else. Religion is not a department of life; it is something that enters into the whole of it. But you see, when a religion and a culture are inseparable, it's very difficult to export a culture, because it comes into conflict with the established traditions, manners, and customs of other people.

So the question arises, what are the essentials of Hinduism that could be exported? And when you answer that, approximately you'll get Buddhism. As I explained, the essential of Hinduism, the real, deep root, isn't any kind of doctrine, it isn't really any special kind of discipline, although of course disciplines are involved. The center of Hinduism is an experience called moksha, liberation, in which, through the dissipation of the illusion that each man and each woman is a separate thing in a world consisting of nothing but a collection of separate things, you discover that you are, in a way, on one level an illusion, but on another level, you are what they call 'the self,' the one self, which is all that there is. The universe is the game of the self, which plays hide and seek forever and ever. When it plays 'hide,' it plays it so well, hides so cleverly, that it pretends to be all of us, and all things whatsoever, and we don't know it because it's playing 'hide.' But when it plays 'seek,' it enters onto a path of yoga, and through following this path it wakes up, and the scales fall from one's eyes.

Now, in just the same way, the center of Buddhism, the only really important thing about Buddhism is the experience which they call 'awakening.' Buddha is a title, and not a proper name. It comes from a Sanskrit root, 'bheudh,' and that sometimes means 'to know,' but better, 'waking.' And so you get from this root 'bodhi.' That is the state of being awakened. And so 'buddha,' 'the awakened one,' 'the awakened person.' And so there can of course in Buddhist ideas, be very many buddhas. The person called THE buddha is only one of myriads. Because they, like the Hindus, are quite sure that our world is only one among billions, and that buddhas come and go in all the worlds. But sometimes, you see, there comes into the world what you might call a 'big buddha.' A very important one. And such a one is said to have been Guatama, the son of a prince living in northern India, in a part of the world we now call Nepal, living shortly after 600 BC. All dates in Indian history are vague, and so I never try to get you to remember any precise date, like 564, which some people think it was, but I give you a vague date - just after 600 BC is probably right.

Most of you, I'm sure, know the story of his life. Is there anyone who doesn't, I mean roughly? Ok. So I won't bother too much with that. But the point is, that when, in India, a man was called a buddha, or THE buddha, this is a title of a very exalted nature. It is first of all necessary for a buddha to be human. He can't be any other kind of being, whether in the Hindu scale of beings he's above the human state or below it. He is superior to all gods, because according to Indian ideas, gods or angels - angels are probably a better name for them than gods - all those exalted beings are still in the wheel of becoming, still in the chains of karma - that is action that requires more action to complete it, and goes on requiring the need for more action. They're still, according to popular ideas, going 'round the wheel from life after life after life after life, because they still have the thirst for existence, or to put it in a Hindu way: in them, the self is still playing the game of not being itself.

But the buddha's doctrine, based on his own experience of awakening, which occurred after seven years of attempts to study with the various yogis of the time, all of whom used the method of extreme asceticism, fasting, doing all sort of exercises, lying on beds of nails, sleeping on broken rocks, any kind of thing to break down egocentricity, to become unselfish, to become detached, to exterminate desire for life. But buddha found that all that was futile; that was not The Way. And one day he broke his ascetic discipline and accepted a bowl of some kind of milk soup from a girl who was looking after cattle. And suddenly in this tremendous relaxation, he went and sat down under a tree, and the burden lifted. He saw, completely, that what he had been doing was on the wrong track. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And no amount of effort will make a person who believes himself to be an ego be really unselfish. So long as you think, and feel, that you are a someone contained in your bag of skin, and that's all, there is no way whatsoever of you behaving unselfishly. Oh yes, you can imitate unselfishness. You can go through all sorts of highly refined forms of selfishness, but you're still tied to the wheel of becoming by the golden chains of your good deeds, as the obviously bad people are tied to it by the iron chains of their misbehaviors.

So, you know how people are when they get spiritually proud. They belong to some kind of a church group, or an occult group, and say 'Of course we're the ones who have the right teaching. We're the in-group, we're the elect, and everyone else is outside.' It is really off the track. But then comes along someone who one-ups THEM, by saying 'Well, in our circles, we're very tolerant. We accept all religions and all ways as leading to The One.' But what they're doing is they're playing the game called 'We're More Tolerant Than You Are.' And in this way the egocentric being is always in his own trap.

So buddha saw that all his yoga exercises and ascetic disciplines had just been ways of trying to get himself out of the trap in order to save his own skin, in order to find peace for himself. And he realized that that is an impossible thing to do, because the motivation ruins the project. He found out, then, see, that there was no trap to get out of except himself. Trap and trapped are one, and when you understand that, there isn't any trap left.  I'm going to explain that of course more carefully.

So, as a result of this experience, he formulated what is called the dharma, that is the Sanskrit word for 'method.' You will get a certain confusion when you read books on Buddhism, because they switch between Sanskrit and Pali words. The earliest Buddhist scriptures that we know of are written the Pali language, and Pali is a softened form of Sanskrit. So that, for example, the doctrine of the buddha is called in Sanskrit the 'dharma,' we must in pronouncing Sanskrit be aware that an 'A' is almost pronounced as we pronounce 'U' in the word 'but.' So they don't say 'dharma,' they say 'dhurma.' And so also this double 'D' you say 'buddha' and so on. But in Pali, and in many books of Buddhism, you'll find the Buddhist doctrine described as the 'dharma.' And so the same way 'karma' in Sanskrit, in Pali becomes 'kama.' 'Buddha' remains the same. The dharma, then, is the method.

Now, the method of Buddhism, and this is absolutely important to remember, is dialectic. That is to say, it doesn't teach a doctrine. You cannot find anywhere what Buddhism teaches, as you can find out what Christianity or Judaism or Islam teaches. Because all Buddhism is a discourse, and what most people suppose to be its teachings are only the opening stages of the dialog.

So the concern of the buddha as a young man - the problem he wanted to solve - was the problem of human suffering. And so he formulated his teaching in a very easy way to remember. All those Buddhist scriptures are full of what you might call mnemonic tricks, sort of numbering things in such a way that they're easy to remember. And so he summed up his teaching in what are called the Four Noble Truths. And the first one, because it was his main concern, was the truth about dukha. Dukha, 'suffering, pain, frustration, chronic dis-ease.' It is the opposite of sukha, which means 'sweet, pleasure, etc.'

So, insofar as the problem posed in Buddhism is dukha, 'I don't want to suffer, and I want to find someone or something that can cure me of suffering.' That's the problem. Now if there's a person who solves the problem, a buddha, people come to him and say 'Master, how do we get out of this problem?' So what he does is to propose certain things to them. First of all, he points out that with dukha go two other things. These are respectively called anitya and anatman. Anitya means - 'nitya' means 'permanent,' so 'impermanence.' Flux, change, is characteristic of everything whatsoever. There isn't anything at all in the whole world, in the material world, in the psychic world, in the spiritual world, there is nothing you can catch hold of and hang on to for safely. Nuttin'. Not only is there nothing you can hang on to, but by the teaching of anatman, there is no you to hang on to it. In other words, all clinging to life is an illusory hand grasping at smoke. If you can get that into your head and see that that is so, nobody needs to tell you that you ought not to grasp. Because you see, you can't.

See, Buddhism is not essentially moralistic. The moralist is the person who tells people that they ought to be unselfish, when they still feel like egos, and his efforts are always and invariably futile. Because what happens is he simply sweeps the dust under the carpet, and it all comes back again somehow. But in this case, it involves a complete realization that this is the case. So that's what the teacher puts across to begin with.

The next thing that comes up, the second of the noble truths, is about the cause of suffering, and this in Sanskrit is called trishna. Trishna is related to our word 'thirst.' It's very often translated 'desire.' That will do. Better, perhaps, is 'craving, clinging, grasping,' or even, to use our modern psychological word, 'blocking.' When, for example, somebody is blocked, and dithers and hesitates, and doesn't know what to do, he is in the strictest Buddhist sense attached, he's stuck. But a buddha can't be stuck, he cannot be phased. He always flows, just as water always flows, even if you dam it, the water just keeps on getting higher and higher and higher until it flows over the dam. It's unstoppable.

Now, buddha said, then, dukha comes from trishna. You all suffer because you cling to the world, and you don't recognize that the world is anitya and anatman. So then, try, if you can, not to grasp. Well, do you see that that immediately poses a problem? Because the student who has started off this dialog with the buddha then makes various efforts to give up desire. Upon which he very rapidly discovers that he is desiring not to desire, and he takes that back to the teacher, who says 'Well, well, well.' He said, 'Of course. You are desiring not to desire, and that's of course excessive. All I want you to do is to give up desiring as much as you can. Don't want to go beyond the point of which you're capable.' And for this reason Buddhism is called the Middle Way. Not only is it the middle way between the extremes of ascetic discipline and pleasure seeking, but it's also the middle way in a very subtle sense. Don't desire to give up more desire than you can. And if you find that a problem, don't desire to be successful in giving up more desire than you can. You see what's happening? Every time he's returned to the middle way, he's moved out of an extreme situation.

Now then, we'll go on; we'll cut out what happens in the pursuit of that method until a little later. The next truth in the list is concerned with the nature of release from dukha. And so number three is nirvana. Nirvana is the goal of Buddhism; it's the state of liberation corresponding to what the Hindus call moksha. The word means 'blow out,' and it comes from the root 'nir vritti.' Now some people think that what it means is blowing out the flame of desire. I don't believe this. I believe that it means 'breathe out,' rather than 'blow out,' because if you try to hold your breath, and in Indian thought, breath - prana - is the life principle. If you try to hold on to life, you lose it. You can't hold your breath and stay alive; it becomes extremely uncomfortable to hold onto your breath.

And so in exactly the same way, it becomes extremely uncomfortable to spend all your time holding on to your life. What the devil is the point of surviving, going on living, when it's a drag? But you see, that's what people do. They spend enormous efforts on maintaining a certain standard of living, which is a great deal of trouble. You know, you get a nice house in the suburbs, and the first thing you do is you plant a lawn. You've gotta get out and mow the damn thing all the time, and you buy expensive this and that and soon you're all involved in mortgages, and instead of being able to walk out into the garden and enjoy, you sit at your desk and look at your books, filling out this and that and the other and paying bills and answering letters. What a lot of rot! But you see, that is holding onto life. So, translated into colloquial American, nirvana is 'whew!' 'Cause if you let your breath go, it'll come back. So nirvana is not annihilation, it's not disappearance into a sort of undifferentiated void. Nirvana is the state of being let go. It is a state of consciousness, and a state of - you might call it - being, here and now in this life.

We now come to the most complicated of all, number four: margha. 'Margh' in Sanskrit means 'past,' and the buddha taught an eightfold path for the realization of nirvana. This always reminds me of a story about Dr Suzuki, who is a very, very great Buddhist scholar. Many years ago, he was giving a fundamental lecture on Buddhism at the University of Hawaii, and he'd been going through these four truths, and he said 'Ah, fourth Noble Truth is Noble Eightfold Path. First step of Noble Eightfold Path called sho-ken. Sho-ken in Japanese mean `right view.' For Buddhism, fundamentally, is right view. Right way of viewing this world. Second step of Noble Eightfold Path is - oh, I forget second step, you look it up in the book.'

Well, I'm going to do rather the same thing. What is important is this: the eightfold path has really got three divisions in it. The first are concerned with understanding, the second division is concerned with conduct, and the third division is concerned with meditation. And every step in the path is preceded with the Sanskrit word samyak. In which you remember we ran into samadhi last week, 'sam' is the key word. And so, the first step, samyak- drishti, which mean - 'drishti' means a view, a way of looking at things, a vision, an attitude, something like that. But this word samyak is in ordinary texts on Buddhism almost invariably translated 'right.' This is a very bad translation. The word IS used in certain contexts in Sanskrit to mean 'right, correct,' but it has other and wider meanings. 'Sam' means, like our word 'sum,' which is derived from it, 'complete, total, all-embracing.' It also has the meaning of 'middle way,' representing as it were the fulcrum, the center, the point of balance in a totality. Middle way of looking at things. Middle way of understanding the dharma. Middle  way of speech, of conduct, of livelihood, and so on.

Now this is particularly cogent when it comes to Buddhist ideas of behavior. Every Buddhist in all the world, practically, as a layman - he's not a monk - undertakes what are called pantasila, the Five Good Conducts. 'Sila' is sometimes translated 'precept.' But it's not a precept because it's not a commandment. When Buddhist priests chant the precepts, you know: pranatipada: 'prana (life) tipada (taking away) I promise to abstain from.' So the first is that one undertakes not to destroy life. Second, not to take what is not given. Third - this is usually translated 'not to commit adultery'. It doesn't say anything of the kind. In Sanskrit, it means 'I undertake the precept to abstain from exploiting my passions.' Buddhism has no doctrine about adultery; you may have as many wives as you like.

But the point is this: when you're feeling blue and bored, it's not a good idea to have a drink, because you may become dependent on alcohol whenever you feel unhappy. So in the same way, when you're feeling blue and bored, it's not a good idea to say 'Let's go out and get some chicks.' That's exploiting the passions. But it's not exploiting the passions, you see, when drinking, say expresses the viviality and friendship of the group sitting around the dinner table, or when sex expresses the spontaneous delight of two people in each other.

Then, the fourth precept, musavada, 'to abstain from false speech.' It doesn't simply mean lying. It means abusing people. It means using speech in a phony way, like saying 'all niggers are thus and so.' Or 'the attitude of America to this situation is thus and thus.' See, that's phony kind of talking. Anybody who studies general semantics will be helped in avoiding musavada, false speech.

The final precept is a very complicated one, and nobody's quite sure exactly what it means. It mentions three kinds of drugs and drinks: sura, mariya[?], maja[?]. We don't know what they are. But at any rate, it's generally classed as narcotics and liquors. Now, there are two ways of translating this precept. One says to abstain from narcotics and liquors; the other liberal translation favored by the great scholar Dr [?] is 'I abstain from being intoxicated by these things.' So if you drink and don't get intoxicated, it's ok. You don't have to be a teetotaler to be a Buddhist. This is especially true in Japan and China; my goodness, how they throw it down! A scholarly Chinese once said to me, 'You know, before you start meditating, just have a couple martinis, because it increases your progress by about six months.'

Now you see these are, as I say, they are not commandments, they are vows. Buddhism has in it no idea of there being a moral law laid down by some kind of cosmic lawgiver. The reason why these precepts are undertaken is not for a sentimental reason. It is not that they''re going to make you into a good person. It is that for anybody interested in the experiments necessary for liberation, these ways of life are expedient. First of all, if you go around killing, you're going to make enemies, and you're going to have to spend a lot of time defending yourself, which will distract you from your yoga. If you go around stealing, likewise, you're going to acquire a heap of stuff, and again, you're going to make enemies. If you exploit your passions, you're going to get a big thrill, but it doesn't last. When you begin to get older, you realize 'Well that was fun while we had it, but I haven't really learned very much from it, and now what?' Same with speech. Nothing is more confusing to the mind than taking words too seriously. We've seen so many examples of that. And finally, to get intoxicated or narcotized - a narcotic is anything like alcohol or opium which makes you sleepy. The word 'narcosis' in Greek, 'narc' means 'sleep.' So, if you want to pass your life seeing things through a dim haze, this is not exactly awakening.

So, so much for the conduct side of Buddhism. We come then to the final parts of the eightfold path. There are two concluding steps, which are called samyak-smriti and samyak-samadhi. Smriti means 'recollection, memory, present-mindedness.' Seems rather funny that the same word can mean 'recollection or memory' and 'present-mindedness.' But smriti is exactly what that wonderful old rascal Gurdjieff meant by 'self-awareness,' or 'self- remembering.' Smriti is to have complete presence of mind.

There is a wonderful meditation called 'The House that Jack Built Meditation,' at least that's what I call it, that the Southern Buddhists practice. He walks, and he says to himself, 'There is the lifting of the foot.' The next thing he says is 'There is a perception of the lifting of the foot.' And the next, he says 'There is a tendency towards the perception of the feeling of the lifting of the foot.' Then finally he says, 'There is a consciousness of the tendency of the perception of the feeling of the lifting of the foot.' And so, with everything that he does, he knows that he does it. He is self-aware. This is tricky. Of course, it's not easy to do. But as you practice this - I'm going to let the cat out of the bag, which I suppose I shouldn't do - but you will find that there are so many things to be aware of at any given moment in what you're doing, that at best you only ever pick out one or two of them. That's the first thing you'll find out. Ordinary conscious awareness is seeing the world with blinkers on. As we say, you can think of only one thing at a time. That's because ordinary consciousness is narrowed consciousness. It's being narrow-minded in the true sense of the word, looking at things that way. Then you find out in the course of going around being aware all of the time - what are you doing when you remember? Or when you think about the future? 'I am aware that I am remembering'? 'I am aware that I am thinking about the future'?

But you see, what eventually happens is that you discover that there isn't any way of being absent-minded. All thoughts are in the present and of the present. And when you discover that, you approach samadhi. Samadhi is the complete state, the fulfilled state of mind. And you will find many, many different ideas among the sects of Buddhists and Hindus as to what samadhi is. Some people call it a trance, some people call it a state of consciousness without anything in it, knowing with no object of knowledge. All these are varying opinions. I had a friend who was a Zen master, and he used to talk about samadhi, and he said a very fine example of samadhi is a fine horse rider. When you watch a good cowboy, he is one being with the horse. So an excellent driver in a car makes the car his own body, and he absolutely is with it. So also a fine pair of dancers. They don't have to shove each other to get one to do what the other wants him to do. They have a way of understanding each other, of moving together as if they were siamese twins. That's samadhi, on the physical, ordinary, everyday level. The samadhi of which buddha speaks is the state which, as it is, the gateway to nirvana, the state in which the illusion of the ego as a separate thing disintegrates.

Now, when we get to that point in Buddhism, Buddhists do a funny thing, which is going to occupy our attention for a good deal of this seminar. They don't fall down and worship. They don't really have any name for what it is that is, really and basically. The idea of anatman, of non-self, is applied in Buddhism not only to the individual ego, but also to the notion that there is a self of the universe, a kind of impersonal or personal god, and so it is generally supposed that Buddhism is generally atheistic. It's true, depending on what you mean by atheism. Common or garden atheism is a form of belief, namely that I believe there is no god - and Hans Enkel[?] is its prophet. (I'm speaking of a famous atheist). The atheist positively denies the existence of any god. All right. Now, there is such an atheist, if you put dash between the 'a' and 'theist,' or speak about something called 'atheos' - 'theos' in Greek means 'god' - but what is a non-god? A non-god is an inconceivable something or other.

I love the story about a debate in the Houses of Parliament in England, where, as you know, the Church of England is established and under control of the government, and the high ecclesiastics had petitioned Parliament to let them have a new prayer book. Somebody got up and said 'It's perfectly ridiculous that Parliament should decide on this, because as we well know, there are quite a number of atheists in these benches.' And somebody got up and said 'Oh, I don't think there are really any atheists. We all believe in some sort of something somewhere.'

Now again, of course, it isn't that Buddhism believes in some sort of something somewhere, and that is to say in vagueness. Here is the point: if you believe, if you have certain propositions that you want to assert about the ultimate reality, or what Portilli[?] calls 'the ultimate ground of being,' you are talking nonsense. Because you can't say something specific about everything. You see, supposing you wanted to say 'God has a shape.' But if god is all that there is, then God doesn't have any outside, so he can't have a shape. You have to have an outside and space outside it to have a shape. So that's why the Hebrews, too, are against people making images of God. But nonetheless, Jews and Christians persistently make images of God, not necessarily in pictures and statues, but they make images in their minds. And those are much more insidious images.

Buddhism is not saying that the Self, the great atman, or whatnot, it isn't denying that the experience which corresponds to these words is realizable. What it is saying is that if you make conceptions and doctrines about these things, you're liable to become attached to them. You're liable to start believing instead of knowing. So they say in Zen Buddhism, 'The doctrine of Buddhism is a finger pointing at the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.' Or so we might say in the West, the idea of God is a finger pointing at God, but what most people do is instead of following the finger, they suck it for comfort. And so buddha chopped off the finger, and undermined all metaphysical beliefs. There are many, many dialogues in the Pali scriptures where people try to corner the buddha into a metaphysical position. 'Is the world eternal?' The buddha says nothing. 'Is the world not eternal?' And he answers nuttin'. 'Is the world both eternal and not eternal?' And he don't say nuttin'. 'Is the world neither eternal nor not eternal?' And STILL he don't say nuttin'. He maintains what is called the noble silence. Sometimes called the thunder of silence, because this silence, this metaphysical silence, is not a void. It is very powerful. This silence is the open window through which you can see not concepts, not ideas, not beliefs, but the very goods. But if you say what it is that you see, you erect an image and an idol, and you misdirect people. It's better to destroy people's beliefs than to give them beliefs. I know it hurts, but it is The Way.

You must understand as one of the fundamental points of Buddhism, the idea of the world as being in flux. I gave you this morning the Sanskrit word anitya as one of the characteristics of being, emphasized by the buddha along with anatman, the unreality of a permanent self, and dukha, the sense of frustration. Dukha really arises from a person's failure to accept the other two characteristics: lack of permanent self and change.

You see, in Buddhism, the feeling that we have of an enduring organism - I meet you today and I see you, and then tomorrow I meet you again, and you look pretty much as you looked yesterday, and so I consider that you're the same person, but you aren't. Not really. When I watch a whirlpool in a stream, here's the stream flowing along, and there's always a whirlpool like the one at Niagara. But that whirlpool never, never really holds any water. The water is all the time rushing through it. In the same way, a university, the University of California - what is it? The students exchange at least every four years; the faculty changes at a somewhat slower rate; the building changes, they knock down old ones and put up new ones; the administration changes. So what is the University of California? It's a pattern. A doing of a particular kind. And so in just precisely that way, every one of us is a whirlpool in the tide of existence, and where every cell in our body, every every molecule, every atom is in constant flux, and nothing can be pinned down.

You know, you can put bands on pigeons, or migrating birds, and identify them and follow them, and find out where they go. But you can't tag atoms, much less electrons. They have a curious way of appearing and disappearing, and one of the great puzzles in physics is what are electrons doing when we're not looking at them? Because our observation of them has to modify their behavior. We can't see an electron without putting it in an experimental situation where our examination of it in some way changes it. What we would like to know is what it is doing when we're not looking at it. Like does the light in the refrigerator really go off when we close the door?

But this is fundamental, you see, to Buddhist philosophy. The philosophy of change. From one point of view, change is just too bad. Everything flows away, and there's a kind of sadness in that, a kind of nostalgia, and there may even be a rage. 'Go not gently into that good night, but rage, rage, at the dying of the light.'

But there's something curious - there can be a very fundamental change in one's attitude to the question of the world as fading. On the one hand resentment, and on the other delight. If you resist change - of course, you must, to some extent. When you meet another person, you don't want to be thoroughly rejected, but you love to feel a little resistance. Don't you, you know? You have a beautiful girl, and you touch her. You don't want her to go 'Blah!' But so round, so firm, so fully packed! A little bit of resistance, you see, is great. So there must always be resistance in change; otherwise there couldn't even be change. There'd just be a 'pfft!' The world would go 'pfft!' and that'd be the end of it.

But because there's always some resistance to change, there is a wonderful manifestation of form, there is a dance of life. But the human mind, as distinct from most animal minds, is terribly aware of time. And so we think a great deal about the future, and we know that every visible form is going to disappear and be replaced by so- called others. Are these others, others? Or are they the same forms returning? Of course, that's a great puzzle. Are next year's leaves that come from a tree going to be the same as this year's leaves? What do you mean by the same? They'll be the same shape, they'll have the same botanical characteristics. But you'll be able to pick up a shriveled leaf from last autumn and say 'Look at the difference. This is last year's leaf; this is this year's leaf.' And in that sense, they're not the same.

What happens when any great musician plays a certain piece of music? He plays it today, and then he plays it again tomorrow. Is it the same piece of music, or is it another? In the Pali language, they say naja-so, naja-ano[?] which means 'not the same, yet not another.' So, in this way, the Buddhist is able to speak of reincarnation of beings, without having to believe in some kind of soul entity that is reincarnated. Some kind of atman, some kind of fixed self, ego principle, soul principle that moves from one life to another. And this is as true in our lives as they go on now from moment to moment as it would be true of our lives as they appear and reappear again over millions of years. It doesn't make the slightest difference, except that there are long intervals and short intervals, high vibrations and low vibrations. When you hear a high sound, high note in the musical scale, you can't see any holes in it - it's going too fast - and it sounds completely continuous. But when you get the lowest audible notes that you can hear on an organ, you feel the shaking. You feel the vibration, you hear that music [throbbing] on and off.

So in the same way as we live now from day to day, we experience ourselves living at a high rate of vibration, and we appear to be continuous, although there is the rhythm of waking and sleeping. But the rhythm that runs from generation to generation and from life to life is much slower, and so we notice the gaps. We don't notice the gaps when the rhythm is fast. So we are living, as it were, on many, many levels of rhythm.

So this is the nature of change. If you resist it, you have dukha, you have frustration and suffering. But on the other hand, if you understand change, you don't cling to it, and you let it flow, then it's no problem. It becomes positively beautiful, which is why in poetry, the theme of the evanescence of the world is beautiful. When Shelly says,

The one remains, the many change and pass,
heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly.
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
stains the white radiance of eternity
until death shatters it to fragments.

Now what's beautiful in that? Is it heaven's light that shines forever? Or is it rather the dome of many-colored glass that shatters? See, it's always the image of change that really makes the poem.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps on life's petty pace from day to day,
until the last syllable of recorded time.

Somehow, you know, it's so well-said that it's not so bad after all. The poet has got the intuition that things are always running out, that things are always disappearing, has some hidden marvel in it. I was discussing with someone during the lunch intermission, the Japanese have a word yugen, which has no English equivalent whatsoever. Yugen is in a way digging change. It's described poetically, you have the feeling of yugen when you see out in the distant water some ships hidden behind a far-off island. You have the feeling of yugen when you watch wild geese suddenly seen and then lost in the clouds. You have the feeling of yugen when you look across Mt Tamapeis, and you've never been to the other side, and you see the sky beyond. You don't go over there to look and see what's on the other side, that wouldn't be yugen. You let the other side be the other side, and it invokes something in your imagination, but you don't attempt to define it to pin it down. Yugen.

So in the same way, the coming and going of things in the world is marvelous. They go. Where do they go? Don't answer, because that would spoil the mystery. They vanish into the mystery. But if you try to pursue them, you destroy yugen. That's a very curious thing, but that idea of yugen, which in Chinese characters means, as it were, kind of 'the deep mystery of the valley.' There's a poem in Chinese which says 'The wind drops, but the petals keep falling. The bird calls, and the mountain becomes more mysterious.' Isn't that strange? There's no wind anymore, and yet petals are dropping. And a bird in the canyon cries, and that one sound in the mountains brings out the silence with a wallop.

Part 1 | Part 2


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ruleOur lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -- Martin Luther King Jr.

Keywords: buddhism, what is buddhism, guide to buddhism, introduction to buddhism, basic buddhism, four noble truths, dhamma, buddha, samsara, karma, buddhism, tibetan buddhism, buddhism religion, theravada buddhism, buddhism belief, basic buddhism, buddhism meditation

 
 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Watts was born in England in 1915.

He earned a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Eastern philosophy, widely recognized for his Zen writings and for The Book, On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

He died in 1973 at his home in California.
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Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

VHS only of a PBS lecture series by one of the first Westerners to "import" Buddhism into the West. Slightly dated, but still potent!
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Become What You Are
Become What You Are
by Alan Watts

For such a small book there is an incredible quantity of wisdom here to contemplate.

The essays included in this collection are all from Watt's work in the 50's. It becomes clear that this man was not merely ahead of his time- he was beyond time. -- S. C. Curtis
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